The Heinz Endowments
In 1950, Pittsburgh's enormously popular mayor, David Lawrence,
who would later go on to serve two terms as Pennsylvania governor,
realized that while his city was internationally renowned as an
economic powerhouse, its residents were paying a heavy price.
The air was clogged with smoke and soot from steel mills and other
heavy manufacturers; rates of respiratory illnesses were some of
the highest in the country, and to escape the ill effects, residents
were moving ever farther from the city limits.
Pittsburgh was wealthy and on the move, but the long-term prospects
for livability were bleak. The way work was done had to change and
the way people lived in the city had to change. So Lawrence gained
support in the business community for sweeping legislation that
would clean up the air and water.
One of the most controversial programs was to order all city businesses
and homeowners to switch from polluting coal to gas or other smokeless
fuels for heating. Since the costs for residents and small business
owners would be huge, community passions on the issue ran deep.
There was so much mail into the city's largest newspaper that the
editor printed a special notice warning writers that their letters
would have to be cut to just a paragraph or two. And the public
hearings in city council were so packed, some residents were forced
to wait out on the street for word from inside.
Lawrence's opponent in the primary, a union leader and city councilman
named Eddie Leonard, saw an easy issue to ride into the mayor's
seat. He played the unpopular smoke-control program to the hilt
- even dropping lumps of coal on the desks of city councilmen who
supported the "no smoke" programs. Some nice suits were
ruined in the messy process of debate.
The primary election, with smoke control as the single issue, was
the tightest Lawrence had experienced in his career, but he stood
fast. As it turned out, voters in the poorest neighborhoods of the
city - many of them African Americans and ethnic, blue-collar workers
- didn't buy Leonard's populist line. They sided with clean air
and water by voting to re-elect Lawrence.
The victory, Lawrence said later after winning the general election,
"was a signal for a concentrated attack on the entire range
of community problems. It was Pittsburgh's breakthrough."
The story of Pittsburgh's air and water cleanup bear out Lawrence's
assessment. The region's rough transformation from an economy dependent
on steel making and other heavy manufacturing, with all of its attendant
pollution problems, into one that recognizes the tremendous quality-of-life
value of clean air and water, can be traced to 1950s smoke control.
Since then, the community has had the confidence to produce several
renaissances, each with its own showcase of well-designed buildings;
amenities like parks, stadiums, an ice rink and public art; riverfront
development and improvements in recreational access to waterways.
It is a safe bet to argue that none of these would have happened
if Pittsburgh still suffered from the nasty, soot-filled air that
hovered over the city until the 1950s.
But even as Pittsburgh's economy is now more diverse and anchored
by a variety of greener industries - life sciences companies and
other high technologies; service-centered and light manufacturing
among them - air quality is not where it needs to be. Business leaders
and elected officials know that Pittsburgh is still landing on a
lot of bad lists that rank cities for air quality. Part of this
is due to better science in investigating air quality and better
tools to do the measuring. A lot of that good work is funded by
this region's philanthropic community through Pittsburgh's own universities.
As we learn more, the bar continues to be raised higher. Also, a
lot of the region's fine, particulate matter pollution drifts in
from industrial power sources in the Midwest. But despite these
issues, which may require federal action to settle, Pittsburghers
have the power to reduce much of the air pollution problem hovering
over them now. There are practices and behaviors that need to change,
just as business leaders, elected officials and residents realized
was necessary in the years leading up to the smoke control debate.
Industry CEOs don't need to wait for a government regulation to
take steps to clean up regional plants that have some of the highest
rates of fine-particulate emissions in the country. Government officials
at municipal and county levels don't need to wait for federal mandates
to demand strong enforcement of existing air-quality standards by
health boards and other agencies at the local level. They don't
need to wait for the federal lead to retrofit fleets of diesel buses
in public transportation systems with equipment that would reduce
soot emissions by 30 percent. School district boards need not wait
for police action to self-enforce regulations against diesel school
buses idling longer than five minutes. And residents need not wait
for an air pollution crisis to make smarter energy consumer choices
- from buying cleaner-emitting vehicles to taking public transportation.
They can embrace renewable sources of energy and join groups that
advocate for policy changes that would bring dramatic improvement
in air quality.
Pittsburgh has the power to once again mark itself as a national
model for air-quality turnaround. The foundation community in the
region is ready to assist in meeting the new challenge, but nothing
substantive will happen without the same dedicated partnership of
industry, government and citizenry that came together on smoke control.
When Pittsburgh breathes easier, we'll discover what a treasure
clean air can be.
Maxwell King is
the president of The Heinz Endowments, one of the largest independent
philanthropic organizations in the country. Prior to joining The Heinz
Endowments in 1999, Mr. King was the editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer.
He can be reached at [email protected].